Teacher Scholar Voices

Differentiation from a distance

Teacher Scholar Voices

I logged onto my first Zoom lesson about fifteen minutes early. 

Nervous about technology glitches and trying to teach a lesson from a distance, I wanted to make sure everything worked. I tried the screen share and practiced live annotation, ensured the chat feature was set to private, and double and triple checked the link for students to access the lesson. I felt a pit in my stomach and was taken back to my first days of teaching—I would stand alone in my classroom, anxiously waiting for students to appear, wondering if I would be able to give them the high quality level of teaching and specialized supports they deserved.

“Umm….Hi Ms. Henderson?” I snapped back to reality when my first student joined the lesson. As other students began to arrive, they easily slipped back into their “at-school” personas, making jokes and checking in on each other as usual, and begging me to give them some “free time” at the end of our session. I smiled and laughed, thinking how similar it felt to our usual learning space, even though we were so physically apart.

Their presence and energy reminded me that I was not a new teacher anymore—simply using a new medium to teach. 

After that first lesson, I started thinking more purposefully about the connections between student needs during distance learning and in-person learning. Did my students still have the same needs? How were they being met? What new challenges were they facing? Could I still differentiate for them from a distance? My reflection led me to 5 distinct accommodations that students may require at school, and what that may look like now that we are learning from a distance.

  1. More time vs. too much time. At school, one of the most common accommodations that students receive is to get extra time. Extra time to finish a test, an assignment, or in-class task, students with specialized needs are often in need of this additional time during the busy school day. However, with distance learning, the opposite seems to be true: students are often faced with having too much time on their hands and are unsure of how to proceed. To support this, some students benefit from a daily visual schedule that shows them what time of day they should be working on a specific task, and includes breaks and lunch. This allows students to visualize how much time they should be spending on a specific subject or assignment even if they do not finish, instead of struggling through a particularly difficult task for the entire day and not accessing the majority of the material.
  2. Learn from their peer vs. learn from an example. At school, many students with specialized needs benefit from having a peer to learn from. This can look like sitting next to a helper student, or by being able to watch what other students are doing in case they missed or did not understand the instructions. Since that type of support is not available during distance learning, teacher-created examples are even more critical in these times. Teachers should create a model of expected work outcomes that students can use as a support even after a virtual lesson is complete.
  3. Re-state & re-explain vs. step-by-step guidance. At school, teachers can take the time during or after a whole group lesson to provide checks for understanding to ensure that students are grasping expectations and the learning. That type of interaction is limited when it comes to screen-time education. Because of this, one great solution to ensure that students are able to produce work aligned to the teacher’s expectations is to provide students with a step-by-step checklist of what they should do. This is particularly helpful when it comes to writing assignments or math assignments, but can also be useful when students are given reading to complete as well. This type of scaffold should be modified depending on the age and needs of a student, as some students should be given a maximum of 2-3 steps, whereas others do well with a longer list.
  4. Different assignments vs. accommodated assignments. At school, it is usually possible for students with significant needs to be given different assignments at specific independent-learning portions of the day. This can look like books at a student’s level during independent reading time, or articles about the same learning topic at a more accessible reading level, or independent math practice designed to increase student skills in a specific area. During times of distance learning, it can be much more challenging to find and assign these types of learning engagement opportunities. When that is the case, it is important for students to work towards completing assignments that have been accommodated in some way. For example, students should work towards finishing ⅓ of a problem set, or completing a shorter essay. Ultimately, students should be given encouragement, support, and credit for trying their best.
  5. Support staff vs. support staff. Fortunately, some things during distance learning have stayed the same. As a Special Education teacher, it is our goal to help students succeed in all areas of school, no matter what the circumstances may be. I encourage you to reach out to your Education Specialist and Special Education staff to discuss specific students and ways they can be supported during this time. None of us are going through this challenging time in education alone, and no matter how far apart we may be—collaborating to support our students is a foundational and permanent piece to the joy of teaching.

Having just wrapped up her 8th year of teaching Resource Special Education with West Contra Costa Unified School District, Elóra Henderson has worked with students in grades K-8 exclusively in Title I Schools. Elóra firmly believes in the power of growth mindset, and encourages every student, teacher, and family to fully embrace the fact that ALL students can learn new things. When she isn’t planning lessons or imagining the complete overhaul and redesign of Special Education, Elóra can usually be found in her vegetable garden or curling up with a good book and her dog, Lorca.